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Bad Faith VI

Barging rudely into territory normally associated with Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, David Thompson‘s latest dispatch for 3:AM takes on the apologists for censorship and their affected sensitivities:

The Grievance Reflex
In his recent Civitas report, We’re (Nearly) All Victims Now, the criminologist Dr David Green argued that “politically-recognised victim status… has begun to do lasting harm to our liberal culture. Groups who have been politically recognised as victims are starting to use their power to silence people who have had the cheek to criticise them.” Green went on to argue: “Modern victim groups create entrenched social divisions by defining opponents as oppressors who not only must be defeated by the state, but silenced by the state.” The term ‘Islamophobia’ was cited as one example of how legitimate questions can be demonised and swept beyond the pale: “The pseudo-psychiatric term Islamophobia is a statement that any criticism of Muslims is evidence of clinical pathology. Yet the label is often attached to valid criticisms of particular Muslims whose behaviour has laid them open to legitimate censure.”

Within hours, this fairly unremarkable statement appeared on the website, IslamophobiaWatch, which was apparently founded with a “determination not to allow the racist ideology of Western imperialism to gain common currency in its demonisation of Islam”. Significantly, no commentary was added by the owners of the site to explain what exactly was so scandalous about Dr Green’s statement. Apparently, the mere questioning of the term ‘Islamophobia’ and the ways in which it is often used is now deemed damning evidence of nefarious intent. No further explanation is needed, which, to say the least, seems a little too convenient.

I have some personal sympathy with Dr Green, as I recently found myself gracing the same website, again without explanation. I’d written an article correcting fundamental errors in newspaper columns written by the popular Islamic commentator Karen Armstrong. Nothing I’d written was challenged in any way and none of the facts I’d presented were disputed. I had, however, transgressed by opposing a hugely tendentious yet remarkably widespread view of Islamic history. I was, it seemed, bad — very bad — and self-evidently so.

This refusal to offer any rationale for accusations of malign intent takes us to the heart of Dr Green’s objections, and of my own mild surprise. Many of those who wield the phrase ‘Islamophobe’, like some fearsome talisman or hex, fail to provide any substantive argument for the charges being thrown around so readily. Nor, it seems, do they feel remotely obliged to do so. Instead of a coherent argument grounded in evidence and specifics, what we typically find is silence, and, almost inevitably, a demand for more silence.

The recent media-fest surrounding Jack Straw’s innocuous and carefully qualified comments about the niqab highlighted this phenomenon. The Lancashire Council of Mosques, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee and the Islamic Human Rights Commission promptly characterised Straw’s comments as “offensive”, “insensitive” and “unwise”, while elsewhere the former foreign secretary was roundly denounced as “prejudiced”, “racist” and, yes, “Islamophobic”. Evidence to support these damning accusations was somewhat hard to find, though some commentators took it upon themselves to hallucinate unspoken motives to suit their assertions, including sexual inadequacy.

It seems the word “Islamophobe” — and its pseudo-synonym, “racist” — has acquired the status of a declamatory WMD. Deploying the term, even by vague insinuation, can generally be counted on to shut down the frontal lobes of any left-leaning ‘culturally sensitive’ person, like some rhetorical kryptonite. Loaded as the term ‘Islamophobia’ is with connotations of oppression, real or imagined, those who brandish this word may often suppose they are righteously defending the perceived weaker party against injurious attack. In practice, they may simply be excusing the party with the weaker argument, or no argument at all.

Which brings us to the tragicomic figure of Yvonne Ridley, a former Sunday Express journalist and current mouthpiece for the Respect party and the Islamist cause in general. Speaking at a Respect rally titled ‘Islamophobia, the War and Freedom of Speech’, Ridley declared: “My faith is my nationality and when you attack it you are being racist”. One can only wonder what is printed on Ms Ridley’s passport. Poseur, perhaps?

But let’s just ponder that claim for a moment and reflect on its tangled ingenuity. See how it covers so many bases, and conflates so many issues, like an all-purpose inoculation against criticism. The self-serving subtext of this statement is difficult to miss and might be paraphrased thus: “My point of view and political opinions are my nationality, my faith, my very skin colour. And if anyone makes my opinions look foolish I will simply ignore what they say and accuse them of racism to shut them up.” Given Ms Ridley’s own dubious and ill-informed views on terrorism, suicide bombing and Jews — which apparently pertain directly to her faith, or pretensions thereof — it hardly seems wise or fair to exempt those views from criticism on grounds of offending her religious observance.

In his Civitas report, David Green mentioned the growing list of “isms and phobias” that are exploited in this way. It’s certainly odd how widely the notion of an irrational and indefensible ‘phobia’ has crept into common usage, largely without question or clear definition. But, in my experience, the people who are most obviously scared and irrational are often those who wear their cultural ‘sensitivity’ like a badge and shy away from any supposedly contentious comment for fear of being defamed on the basis of nothing whatsoever.

David Thompson is a freelance writer whose work appears in The Observer, The Times and The Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Eye: The International Review of Graphic Design. An archive of his work can be found at his website.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 16th, 2006.